Can Clown change?

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Can Clown change?

In conversation with Amrita Dhaliwal about Identity, vulnerability and responsibility

Amrita Dhaliwal interviewed by Benjamin Richter

  • © Amrita Dhaliwal Old Man © Kevin Krieger
    © Amrita Dhaliwal Old Man © Kevin Krieger

Can you tell us what you personally think and feel this thing called clown is?

Clown is a term that’s widely used but has many different understandings. It is not uncommon that you could meet two practitioners or students of clown, who have two very different definitions, different journeys, and understandings of their practices. I think that’s partly because the clown is so personal. As a teacher I am looking for a very particular ridiculousness, that is unique to each person. So, for me clown, at the very foundation, is to discover how you are uniquely ridiculous. And to add, Clown is an ever-evolving form, and in my own evolution of it, I’m moving away from even using the word “clown”. This also allows me the freedom to push the medium and to be more inclusive of voices that have been and are, rarely heard in the clown world. I’ve taken to using “Idiot” from John Gilkey1 when he created The Idiot Workshop, he purposely did not call it clown so he could have more freedom and flexibility.

I understand that it’s very challenging to redefine a term that has such strong historical baggage. But isn’t it also important to reclaim the term clown itself?

Recently I thought, I don’t know if I want to be identified with the community of clown, but then I think you’re right, there is a reclaiming of it. A part of my role as a teacher is to illuminate the various voices and indigenous communities whose histories are erased in clown training and have not been included. So, I sometimes say “clown”, but when I use another term, it allows for more space to consider a wider history and ask more questions. I relate more to the term idiot, also because it focuses on something the clown doesn’t – for example, the lineage of the trickster2 which is also deeply rooted in indigenous cultures of North America. The trickster isn’t so wise that they don’t fall into the traps they set for others. There is a bit of a trickster in Bouffon3 that I think encompasses the same roots of clown.4 Western European clown has been extremely cishet white dominated, and I want to acknowledge that it’s very painful for people who have learned from this perspective to think that what they love, that is so personal for them, may have been harmful to others. So, I have moved away from emphasising things that can create shame and instead, I encourage that we, as a community, can just continue to be curious, ask questions, hold our histories both erased and written, and see what different positions arise in relation to it. That’s something that’s been really humbling for me.

In recent years, an awareness has spread that western clown has been developed inside systems of oppression. What do you see to be the problematic codes and practices still present in contemporary Clown?

Let me start by saying that this is a big question. There’s a lot to consider and name here. And if you had asked me this same question even just 1 year ago, my list would have been very long! Since 2017, with a lot of passion, I have engaged in dismantling systems of oppression within clown ecosystems. That meant looking at the pedagogy, interrogating our institutions, helping to facilitate necessary dialogue within the community, and more. Still clown’s centre of power is very much dominated by cishet white people who are paid for the performing and teaching. But the clown ecosystem exists within a greater ecosystem, that still has so many oppressive structures in place. I have realised that change will take a long time. I have expanded my time horizon - I’m in for the long haul - I commit to making an effort day by day. So, I have more grace and patience for how quickly I expect change to happen, and for people that might be labelled as problematic because of their positions, lack of awareness or their ignorance. I realise that if I want the whole system to change, then they are going to have to be a part of change too. I am holding space for discomfort, getting messy, more anger and grief and more joy and praise - we are doing a lot of things well too! I’m really focused on holding the hope and uplifting the community towards a more equitable space while also holding the darkness.

What advice would you give to somebody with a marginalised identity who is interested in clown classes?

It is a predominantly cishet white ecosystem, so go in with the buddy system, which is to find someone that you can process with and go together with them. You can also reach out to a teacher before signing up to learn more about their process and perspectives.

Clown teachers often encourage people to explore places outside of their comfort zones. At what point do you think can that become problematic?

There is a line at which it becomes problematic and an area where it’s potentially harmful, meaning we are no longer working within a student’s zones of resiliency. I want to acknowledge though, that there is an important role of discomfort in clown training, in finding your unique ridiculousness. However, it is imperative that the teacher is sensing where the student is in their resiliency. A teacher needs to keep bringing them into the present. There are many somatic tools available to help a teacher navigate discomfort together with the student and these need to be more widely implemented. I have had the benefit of seeing people arrive at their ridiculousness by not being pushed out of their zone of resiliency through Paola Coletto5. If the goal is to arrive in this ridiculous form, then why not use a gentler path? You don’t need to harm someone. And yet, I’m sure that I have pushed someone too far and have hurt someone and that is not okay. That is on us as teachers to understand what changes need to happen in our approaches. Yes, discomfort is a necessary part of the journey, however, we can be gentle and mindful of where we bring in discomfort, and how we bring the student along in that conversation. Empowering them and saying, “We’re going to work together gently, and you have agency”. Teachers in clown pedagogy can not only be harmful in that they push you too hard, but it can be harmful in the declarations they make in the room. “You are a clown”, or “You are not a clown”. Or “there are only a few real clowns in each generation” - a quote from one of the most famous and celebrated clown teachers of all. Can you imagine taking a class in anything where the teacher says, “actually only a few of you will walk out with any credible skill”?

Marginalised identities have a different relationship to vulnerability in daily life than the non-marginalised. How do you think the vulnerability that is often encouraged in clown workshops is a potentially problematic issue in relation to that?

I think you’ve named it really well, which is that not all of us have the same ease around our vulnerability. Some of us walk in identities that have already been made vulnerable. From a pedagogical place, I think it’s problematic, because it’s a way in which not all the students are showing up on an equal footing. Vulnerability does seem to be a part of the clown formula, but I think there’s a role in how we bring it into the room and how we emphasise it. In the work John Gilkey and I are doing, and we have also collaborated with Jon Davison,6 we have moved away from even saying vulnerability. We have de-emphasized it and I found that the students brought it up for themselves and named it through their own discovery and empowerment. I want to name that vulnerability is one word that is used to describe both a feeling or perception, and on the other side, the real risk or insecurity faced by people due to various physical, social, economic, and environmental factors. A students’ own feeling of being vulnerable is valuable because it is personal. Yes, they might move through the world and not really be vulnerable because their identity gives them safety, protection, access, agency etc. But they personally feel vulnerable when they play in a certain way. That is important to look at too.

You mentioned previously that you think that the big emphasis on vulnerability is also part of the reason why white men are so successful as clowns – would you like to expand on this?

That identity holds the most perceived societal and structural power. For an individual to be vulnerable would be to break the power they hold and for white men this is most easily accomplished by making a fool of oneself. The whole room laughs at him, but he can still walk off that stage and hold his power. But if you’re a person of the global majority in a predominantly cishet white room, being visible and very still could be the most vulnerable. In other words, how we perceive vulnerability is shaped by one’s identity. But true personal vulnerability is not what most clown training will focus on and does not apply to everyone in the same way. Instead, what we see is a style of vulnerability, which is most popular in European clown pedagogy and that standard was set by cishet white men. So, I might be pushed into a “style of vulnerability”, which is harmful to me. And my actual vulnerability is deemed not clown, but a white guy’s is. So, you can see it is very confusing for the student and ultimately it is at the discretion of a teacher - who may or may not have done their own identity work and may or may not be aware of the biases playing out before them. So again, the emphasis on vulnerability in clown training pedagogically benefits certain identities. And yet, I am not saying it is invaluable, but instead I focus on play and pleasure, risk and consequences. In doing so, I decentre the collective white gaze on the artist that requires them to perform a narrow definition of vulnerability.

Going out of the studio into a public performance space with a white cishet identity, what is the responsibility as a socially conscious artist?

In clown you’re in a direct relationship with the world. There is a conversation going on so it’s a great opportunity for change. But the artist decides what conversation they want to have - that is their artistic freedom. For the socially conscious artist, I believe they have a responsibility to make a difference with their art. However, they are a work-in-progress. They are not perfect; I am not perfect. And their lens on justice is ever evolving and growing. So, they might get it wrong. They will and I will continue to make mistakes. We’re not going to read one article or one book and get it all. The socially conscious artist makes a commitment to constantly learning and humbling themselves. I would advise the socially conscious artist: Please don’t let your fear of not getting it right prevent you from getting your art out there. Just go and create. Put it out there and get feedback, then go again and repeat. How the world receives your work is valuable for you to take in, there is a conversation happening. Especially in clown, because of the very direct relationship with the audience.

Do you think that there is a connection between clown principles and principles of social activism? And do you think that clown is inherently political?

Yes. I believe clown is asking you to interrogate all of you, including your identities, and to be in direct relationship to the audience, toreveal our collective humanity. By awakening to a deeper sense of yourself within these greater systems, you become conscious of your own socio-political location within all of it. And hopefully you can see the absurd play in it too! So, for me, naturally, the clown can be a tool for social justice activism. But this is not a widely held belief in the clown diaspora in the United States! I was on a panel recently where a prominent clown teacher stated that “The clown is not political” and most people on the panel agreed. I totally disagree with that. But most clown training in the United States will say the clown is not political. But how does the opinion that clown is not political, relate to the cultural heritage and history of clown? Well that position totally erases the heritage and history. On one hand they say this is an old, even sacred, art form that comes from indigenous and ancient cultures. But when you look at those lineages, their clown is asking you to reckon with something in the world, in the community, in the tribe. So, what happened between then and now, when suddenly our clown is void of that depth, that reckoning, that political lens? One of my hopes is to bridge that gap. I believe the clown embodies all of humanity, the dark and the light, laughter, and sorrow. So yes, clown would speak to our collective and individual fear, love, hate, desire, and so on. Clown is ultimately asking you to be present and if you take that philosophy with you into life, then you realize just how fragile, finite, and precious everything is. So, let’s go slowly and maybe we can arrive into clown’s deeper purpose.

Thank you.

1 John Gilkey is the founder and creative director of The Idiot Workshop and an award-winning circus performer, actor, director, and teacher. He has performed internationally for more than 35 years in circus, variety, comedy clubs, theatre, and television. John’s original and quirky routines are known for being an influential part of the contemporary circus movement that began in the 1980s.
2 Lewis Hyde defines the Trickter as sacred and profane, clean, and dirty, male and female, young and old, living and dead – and in every case trickster will cross the line and confuse the distinction. Trickster is the mythic embodiment of ambiguity and ambivalence, doubleness and duplicity, contradiction and paradox. Vgl. Hyde, Lewis: Trickster Makes This World. New York 1998. p 7.
3 According to Giovanni Fusetti the word “Bouffon” comes from the latin verb “buffare”, “to fill the cheeks with air, to deform oneself in order to provoke laughter.” A very old human practice, bouffons are direct descendants of the Ancient Greek Satyric Drama. The common use of the term today came into the English theatre language through the work of Jacques Lecoq. The essence of the Bouffon is in the dynamic of mocking. Vgl. Fusetti, Giovanni. Published at Giovanni Fusetti. (last accessed on 8.3.2024)
4 (only relevant in German)
5 Paola Coletto was the founder and creator of The School for Theater Creators. She was one of only 40 students in the 67-year history of the École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq to be certified as a pedagogical specialist under the direction of the school’s founder, legendary French actor-director Jacques Lecoq. A true renaissance woman, Coletto also had degrees in classical studies and architecture, design, and textile work, as well as certification as a personal trainer and bodywork professional.
6 Jon Davison is a clown performer, teacher, director, producer, researcher, and musician with nearly 40 years’ experience in theatre, street, circus, and TV. He is Lecturer in Clowning at London Metropolitan University and founder of the London Clown School. He is the author of three books, Clown Readings in Theatre Practice and Clown Training, a practical guide, which have become major textbooks for students of clowning worldwide and, most recently, The Clowning Workbook.

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